The Japanese observe quite a number of customs to welcome the new year. The one tradition that I have come to deeply appreciate is watching the first sunrise of the year. Thankfully, sunrise is not too early at this time of the year (this year, 2016, it was at 6:52 a.m.), allowing for ample time to get to a good viewing spot. Dating back to the Meiji Era, this practice has since drawn people to mountaintops, beaches and viewing decks to pray before the first sunrise of the year, which is believed to possess supernatural powers.
This year, our family (including two kids aged 3 and 5 years) went up Mt. Hiwada (日和田山) for this once-a-year event. Located in the Koma area of Saitama, the mountain is about 300 meters high and is a relatively easy hike. When we got to the top, there were already many people, young and old, perched on rocks, waiting. Ordinarily, the view from this point is spectacular in itself, but on the first day of the year, there is a different energy in the air brought about by the collective anticipation. When the first rays of the sun became visible, the crowd oohed and aahed and clapped together. Witnessing this ten-second miracle (before it became too painful to look at the sun directly) moved me to tears. The sun peeking from the horizon symbolized the gift of a new day, and on this first day of the year, of a brand new year. As a bonus, you can also view snow-capped Mt. Fuji on the southern side, which is also believed to be good luck.
The base of Mt. Hiwada is about a 15 minute walk from Koma Station (高麗駅) on the Seibu Chichibu Line, which is connected to the Seibu Ikebukuro Line. Train lines run for 24 hours between New Year's Eve and New Year's day, making it possible to plan a trip to make it in time for sunrise. From the station, directions to Mt. Hiwada can also be found on strategically placed red guide posts (in Japanese only so keep the kanji for Mt. Hiwada handy). Parking spots are available at the base for a fee. There are toilets and a vending machine should you need a pit stop before hiking up. From the base, the view point is about a quick 20-minute or a slow 40-minute hike up. Trails are well-marked and easy to follow. The steeper, more difficult "male route" gets you to the top quicker while the "female route" has an easier gentler slope that takes a little more time.
Whether you are praying for good health, prosperity, or happiness, welcoming the new year by watching the first break of day from Mt. Hiwada might be one of the more magnificent experiences of a lifetime.